Well, the Bataan Memorial Death March 2018 has come and gone. I can now officially say that I have participated in one of these outstanding events and I couldn’t be more proud of that fact.
Unfortunately, my husband and I were unable to complete the entire 26.2 mile route as we had planned. Instead, due to reasons made clear through the rest of this post, we completed the 14.2 mile Honorary Route. I am disappointed we were not in a condition to finish the full route, but I am also very proud of my husband for digging deep and making it through the shorter Honorary Route. I am also proud of myself for not giving up when it was made clear that we wouldn’t be doing the full course.
So, what happened?
We arrived at White Sands Missile Range around 3:20 AM in order to avoid the long lines of traffic in the hours ahead of the opening ceremonies at 6:35 AM. This was a good idea. Starting around 4:15 AM the line of cars could be seen from the parking area we were comfortably situated in. The husband tried to take a nap while I walked around to calm my nerves. I don’t like large groups of people and I knew I would be on the course with over 8,400 of them so I needed the calm, quiet hours of early morning to keep the anxiety levels down. It was a successful exercise.
By 5:15 AM, the husband had abandoned all hope of any restful slumber and we began our final preparations for the march. Popping the trunk of the car, we slathered ourselves with SPF 50 sunscreen in an attempt to stave off heat injuries and weeks of painful peeling. We even shared with the older gentleman parked next to us as he related how sunscreen was the one thing he had forgotten. A short, light conversation later, he departed and we put our racing bibs on. Since we both wore button down hiking shirts, this was more of a task than we assumed it would be. Getting flimsy pieces of wax/plastic coated paper to remain taught and straight with four safety pins is challenging in the dark at 5:30 in the morning. However, this was success #2 for the day.
By 6:00 AM we had found ourselves in our respective corrals (me in Civilian Heavy and him in Civilian Light) per the warnings of the literature we had been given (anyone not in their corral by 6:00 AM would not be let on the course). Unfortunately, this guidance proved wrong. About 50% of the marchers wee still at their cars or, more likely, waiting in line for one of 3 dozen porta-potties that lined the west side of the field the corrals were located in. It did not appear as if the organizers were about to bar 50% of the field from participating so those who followed the instructions simply got to shiver through the chilly desert morning.
At 6:38 AM the opening ceremony began. Fairly standard content: welcome message, posting of colors, national anthems (Filipino and American), invocation, motivational speech, F-15 flyover, symbolic roll call – you know, standard stuff for anyone who has every been to a military ceremony of any kind. Other than starting a couple of minutes late (sacrilege for any commander), this also went off without a hitch.
The husband continued to shiver through the wee-morning hours (he really doesn’t like any temperature below 70 degrees Fahrenheit) as we waited for the other corrals to empty and our respective starts. Seeing a lack of organization and accountability, he moved into my corral so we could start together and not have to try to find each other in the sea of people that were the marchers. Since we ended up near the back of the pack, I don’t think this had a negative impact on anybody’s march.
An hour and a half after the opening ceremonies, we set foot on the course at 8:10 AM. Admittedly, we skipped meeting the survivors of the Bataan Death March (you know, the event that this memorial march is named after) and opted to see them at the end of the long walk. The husband didn’t want to be last and I was a bit antsy from the 3 hours of pointless standing I had just put myself through so I upped the pace to a respectable 14 minutes a mile. We soon found ourselves coasting by people who had been released in the corral ahead of us (Civilian Light). All was good in the first mile because it was a wide, 4-lane road and the marchers were spread out (left-to-right) with plenty of room for individuals or teams to maneuver around those going slower.
At the start of the second mile, things got a bit more cramped. We went off road to circumvent a large grass field and the foot pounded trail was only 2-3 people wide and showing signs of 7,000+ pairs of feet having already pounded over it that morning. A few more passes of slower movers and we hit Water Point 1 and mile marker 2. Both of us were doing good as we grabbed some cups of water from the volunteers (great people!) and bobbed and weaved through the mass of stopped or barely moving marchers gathering in the middle of the course (a theme that repeated itself many times over in the miles to come).
Miles 2 thru 5 were ultimately uneventful. We maintained a good pace (about 4 miles per hour) and were doing quite well navigating the masses of people without getting pushy. Remember, we weren’t looking to complete for a medal, but we also didn’t want to get stuck at a pace that put us on the hardest part of the course during the hottest part of the day. So we pushed on.
Miles 6 and 7 got interesting really quickly. At around mile marker 6, the terrain begins to slope upward. It is a slight incline. It isn’t a mountain nor is it steep enough to really notice at first, but it is there. Then you realize, “oh crap! I’m on a frickin’ hill!” Next thing you realize is that you’re slogging through 6-inch deep sand with enough give in it to require additional energy for each step. Coupled with the maneuvering around people who aren’t paying attention to their surroundings or placement on the trail and your energy starts to drain quickly.
At some point in Mile 7, the husband twisted his knee pretty hard which resulted in a grimacing look of concentrated effort. Underneath that concentrated effort was an internal monologue of cursing, berating, and hate towards me for pushing the pace on a hill in deep sand. Fortunately (for me), buried underneath the pain and momentary dislike for my presence was his undying love and affection for me (otherwise I may not have come down from that hill). Finally, around 10:30 AM we passed mile marker 8 and rolled into Checkpoint 3/9.
This was the moment for a decision to be made.
I turned to the husband and asked the very serious question, “if we continue on the course, will you be able to complete it without a high possibility of a serious injury?” As he contemplated, I asked myself the same question and came to a very abrupt conclusion: I wasn’t going to make it even if he could. At some point after mile marker 6, I had stopped sweating as profusely as I had been and my hands looked like over-stuffed sausages. I tried to make a fist and couldn’t get my fingertips to touch my palms (something I can usually do without thinking about it). The pack I was wearing was cutting off circulation to my arms and dehydration was beginning to set in with 18.2 miles to go. I wasn’t going to make it the full length of the course.
He answered my question with a negative, an apology, and some tears welling in his eyes. I wrapped my arm around him and smiled, letting him know what my answer was going to be even if he was good to finish the course. We sat on the side of the road for a while longer before picking up our packs and turning left towards the Honorary Route instead of right for the full course. Our day was over (except for the 6.2 miles to the finish line in order to get off the course) and we were disqualified marchers.
I swear to anyone that reads this, Miles 9-14.2 were each longer than any of the miles before them. In the first 8 miles, the mile marker signs were frequent and motivating. Mile 9 felt more like Mile 11 and Mile 13, I swear to you, was actually Mile 17. They were so far apart and took so long to get to I became very frustrated with the world.
Admittedly, my mind had already moved from Mile 8 to the Finish Line by the time we stepped out of Checkpoint 3/9 so the thought of 6.2 miles of walking (somehow uphill a majority of the way) in the same sandy conditions we had just come out of was not putting my in the best of moods. Somewhere around Mile 11 I was pissed at the world and ready for it all to be over. The husband wasn’t doing much better and together in our collective misery we made it to the Finish Line. Crowds of people cheered and encouraged us through the last mile and we gracefully shook the hands of the survivors as we crossed.
In the end, I didn’t even weigh my pack because we were already disqualified by not completing the full route. We were both disappointed, in pain, and ready to be rid of any clothing/equipment we didn’t need without being arrested for indecency. Unfortunately, the Finish Line was about 3/4 of a mile from the Start Line which is where our car was located. Such a rough end to a rough day.
Check out Part 2 in “The Day After” series of posts to read about some lessons learned from this experience!
Did you march in this year’s Bataan Memorial Death March? Did you complete the course you signed up for or did you make the difficult decision to cut it short? Tell us about your experience in the comments below!